Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th

"That's what I want to give people - that experience of Oh my gosh, this is magical."

By: Mar. 23, 2023
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Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th

On Monday, March 27th, Jason Kravits will return to Birdland, where he has successfully played many iterations of his award-winning musical comedy improv OFF the TOP!. Now in its eighth year, this fascinating program in which audience members provide the details for Mr. Kravits to compose brand new songs on the spot has become a phenomenon, a cabaret engine that could, capturing the attention of crowds who keep coming back for more and new patrons, interesting to see if all that they've heard is true. With the release of his first album JIM... AND OTHER FINE SUGGESTIONS (Broadway World review HERE) and this new iteration of OFF The TOP! (featuring guest artist Julie Benko, who is, herself, having a heck of a year), Jason Kravits is that great thing that all actors crave to be: busy.

In spite of his demanding schedule, Jason Kravits sat down with Broadway World Cabaret for a photo shoot and a chat last Friday, to talk about TOP!, JIM, and the life of a show business Jack-Of-All trades making his own destiny.

Get tickets to the March 27th, 8:30 pm performance of OFF the TOP! On the Birdland website HERE.

Photos by Stephen Mosher; Visit the Stephen Mosher website HERE.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Jason Kravits, welcome to Broadway World.

Thank you, Stephen.

We are here talking about your upcoming performance of OFF The TOP!!

Yep.

I'm so fascinated by this because you've been doing this, now, for seven years.

This will be the eighth year.

So, for a lot of us who have been with your career for a long time, there's this heavy, dramatic stuff like The Practice...

Mm-hmm.

And then there's this comedy musical side...

Yeah.

Was this part of your drama school training? Is this something that came from throughout your life? Or is it an eight-year-new thing?

I didn't go to drama school. I was an undergrad at University of Maryland, Bachelor of the Arts. It was a good program for me - it's not a conservatory program of any kind - and I lived and worked in Washington, DC for six years after college. I didn't jump into having an agent - a lot of conservatories will set up a showcase. I didn't have that experience. I moved to New York when I was 28 - I was doing a ton of theater in Washington, DC, I got the opportunity to do everything from Molière to Shakespeare to Ayckbourn and Sondheim. I was doing all these different new plays, so I had a lot of opportunities to explore and practice all these different things, almost like a grad school. But I think I was performing since I was a kid. My family, we were always performing together. My brother (who did The Drowsy Chaperone with me) we had a band growing up. And my family, whether they were in the business or not, was very vaudevillian, so I was exposed to a lot of comedy and a lot of music. I thought, for sure, I was gonna be going into musical theater, based on what I did in high school, and what I enjoyed with my family. A lot of my family still is very heavily involved in musical theater, but I've kind of spread out in a lot of different ways. I always come back to music. There's something about music, in my career, that I just keep returning to. It's something that I really connect to. I love doing all the different things and I feel like that's been kind of my M.O. in this business: doing everything as often as possible. I think it gives you an opportunity to make the most out of the business. It's hard to do one thing, I think.

Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th

Tell me about this band you had.

Yeah, my brother and I had a band in high school and we played all the greats. What a range! From Styx to Journey. We also did Rush and we did Cream and we did The Kinks. We were very musical from early on, even when we were younger; when I was 10, 11 years old, my two sisters and my brother and I would go to nursing homes - my mom used to volunteer at nursing homes and we would go and sing for the older people. We would sing songs from their youth, but also John Denver songs and songs from musicals, so we were already performing together at a very young age.

And how did you find out that you could write songs on the spot?

It was a really bizarre moment for me. I had been performing with Don't Quit Your Night Job, and I was doing some musical improv with them, but it was usually with other people, really talented people. It was a lot of fun. And one of those people was Tara Copeland, who used to teach (still teaches) musical improv in Los Angeles. I was in Los Angeles and she said, "Do you want to come and guest star in my musical improv show?" It was called Diamond Lion. I said, "What do you do?" She goes, "Well, I'm just gonna interview you. And then the music will start, and we'll all start doing songs based on the interview." I said okay. So she interviewed me and we were talking about having kids - she was pregnant and my son was young. I was talking about taking him to see his first movie, Toy Story Three, and the music started. I was like, "Oh, this is the cue. We'll start doing this song. I'm gonna sing and then everybody will come in." Nobody came in. So I did the whole song and I finished. That's when it hit me that it was not something I tried to do. I did it, and then suddenly it was done. And I'm like, wait a minute, I can do this. And I'd already had this idea in the back of my head about parodying cabaret because cabarets can be really great and it can be really painful, as I'm sure you've seen.

So painful.

I remember the late Mary Cleere Haran - I once saw her perform cabaret, and I went up afterwards and said that was amazing, and she said, "Oh honey, as my late husband once said, cabaret is the last stop on the entertainment railroad." I was so tickled by that that I said I really want to do a cabaret, but I want to do one that's sort of a parody of cabaret, but also kind of an homage to cabaret. It could be really great, and it also could be very self-indulgent, so instead of creating a character out of whole cloth and saying this is my cabaret character, said I'm gonna do something else. Once I got improvising, I found out I can improvise a song. I thought maybe this is the way into that. Improvise a show that's a cabaret and use all the tropes you can find in a cabaret. It sort of all came together.

And now, eight years later..

Eight years later.

OFF The TOP! is a regular thing for you. You do this a lot throughout the year, and not just in this city. You do it out in the provinces too.

Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th I've done it in LA, I've done it in DC, and I've done it several times in London. I just booked another gig at Crazy Coqs, which is a great venue, in September. It's been really rewarding to be able to do it outside of New York 'cause people in New York understand cabaret, but out in the hinterlands, they just like the comedy. They might not get all the references and I sometimes have to change certain things based on where I am. I want to do it in more hinterlands. I might have the opportunity to do it in St. Louis this year.

And you are constantly working. You're continually filming, you do stage work: finding time to do OFF The TOP! must be difficult.

Oh, the illusion of work in this business. As much as it looks like I'm working, anybody who works the way I do, in television, who comes in for a guest star here and there, there's so much free time. I've never had to cancel a show because I had to work . I can schedule a show months in advance and there's a pretty good guarantee I'm gonna be able to do it. I mean, this business is cyclical - sometimes you'll be very busy and then sometimes you'll have nothing for months and you'll think well, it was a nice run. So I guess I better keep doing this cabaret cause at least I can control that.

Is it letting us into state secrets if I ask you if there is a formula in your head that is going to carry you through the show, when you go out there?

Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th There's a skeleton to the show, certainly - I had to develop that over time. When I first did the show, there was no form. There were ideas for styles of songs, but no real structure to the songs and no real structure to the evening. What I realized is it's like a magician, right? If I showed you a card trick and I said, "Is this your card?" you'd go, "Oh my gosh, how did you do that? How did you pull my card?" And I'd say, "Well, let me do it again," and I'd do it again. And you'll say wow, you did it again, you found my card... by the sixth or seventh time, you expect me to find the card, and at this point you say, "I still dunno how you do it, but at least I'm relaxed about it now cause I know you're gonna do it."

People started telling me (after the first couple times I did the show), "At the beginning I was terrified. I was on the edge of my seat. But once I realized you could do it, I kind of relaxed." I don't want people to relax. I want this to be an event where we're both on the edge of our seats at all times. So I said, "You've gotta have a structure to the show, that things build. It's a new style that is unexpected, and it's gonna have a shape that's behind the music vibe where you're the rise and fall and the lessons learned. You have to tell that story in order to keep people involved." The stakes had to get higher. The degree of difficulty had to get higher. One of my favorite things in the show is when I'm about three quarters of the way through, and I'll say, "And the name of that song was..." and I'll reach into the fishbowl of suggestions and I'll hear somebody go, "Uh oh." I know I got you at that point. That's exciting to me. I try to maintain that. I'm constantly switching it up for my own purposes. I don't do the exact same styles every time. I wanna try different duets or different musicians... and bringing a guest star on is always a higher degree of difficulty. That's always been fun.

Have you had any instances where you go out there and either you or you and your guest come up empty? Can't find anything at all?

Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th Well, me, a little bit. I was performing in Edinburgh and I wasn't feeling well. I had gotten a cold or something, and my brain just wasn't clicking in the same way. I knew it was a problem when I rhymed the word dream with the word dream with the word dream... like four times in a song. I couldn't think of a rhyme for the word dream - not a good sign - but I was able to shake it off. You let it go, move on to the next one. The audience kind of enjoys that part of it too, because you're all on the same page.

You trained as an actor.

And as a musical theater actor.

Did you train as a musician?

I'm a self-taught musician. We always had guitars and pianos and other instruments around my house growing up. I was not musical. My brother and my older sister were the musical ones. My sister played piano, and my brother learned piano by ear, and they both could play the guitar. Then, when I was about 15, 16 years old, I picked up a guitar and never put it down for 10 years. It became something I wanted to learn. And I just learned by listening to songs and rewinding and playing. I still can't play piano, but I can play a lot of string instruments.

And what is it like for you as a composer?

That's a really good question, because I've never really considered myself a composer.

You just released an album of original music.

I did. Again, there's a bit of improvisation to that too, because all the songs were written 24 hours, after I got the suggested title. So my compositions are still done quickly and not based on my own original concepts - they are based on other people's suggestions. So, I think of myself as a wish fulfillment specialist. Why don't we call it that? A musical wish fulfillment specialist. The original intent of making the album was to give me a chance to exercise the idea of composing, and it was successful, in my mind, for my purposes. It was really great. I saw the habits it was getting me out of by giving me a deadline and accountability. I was able to not be such a perfectionist about things, to trust first impulses, and be able to allow things to flow through me a little bit more than they would if I was sitting down to write a song. It was great. It gave me a lot of tools for what I hope is the next step, which is composing more and writing more full musical things. That's how I would see myself as a composer, at least.

Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th

This journey into the cabaret, into the small venue performance arena - has it been a surprise to you?

A surprise In what way?

Obviously you didn't expect that you would be doing this kind of work.

No, I didn't. I always assumed somebody was gonna pick up the ball and run with it for me. That hasn't happened. I think that a lot of creative people have that experience. You bring something to the table and you're like, "Here's what I've got. What do you think I should do?" I don't know who would pick it up and run with it and what that would mean. But I thought this was going to be a showcase for me in a lot of different ways as a comedian, as a musical theater person, as a creative person that people would wanna work with.

And what it really did was it blew up a bit of a reputation of me being a self-starter more than anything else. And I think what people see is, "Oh, this guy can do it for himself. So keep going. Keep doing more. What else you got? Do some more things." I think a lot of people who develop their own material experience that. That was one of the benefits of the way I went through college, not being part of a conservatory, where everything is laid out for you. I had to create my own material. I helped found an improv comedy group in college, and I would find ways to direct, I would find ways to be involved creatively, in as many different ways as I could because there just wasn't enough. Once I got outta college I didn't have anyone looking out for me, when I moved to New York: I didn't have an agent, I couldn't get an agent, I had to hustle, and I started hustling. I think I'm exhausted by it now. So, yes, the journey is different than I thought it was gonna be, with this show. I had to stop doing it, as a matter of fact, for the purpose of getting something else out of it. Now I only do it because I enjoy doing it. And I think enough people still want to come see it, still enjoy it, and are surprised by it - that (makes it) worth doing.

Interview: Jason Kravits of OFF THE TOP! at Birdland Theater March 27th

It must give you a great deal of personal satisfaction.

Yes. It's all yours. Every once in a while, I'll allow myself to stop and go, "Oh yeah, I made that, beginning to end, and got everybody here and interested, and I'm still working on it." I'm not taking it for granted. It's something that is still in progress, that's what I love about doing the show - it's developed enough of an audience that enjoys coming back to it. The songs are always new, the story is always new, it's a communal event. It's your suggestions that I'm taking... and I never cheat. I pride myself on that. I don't ever have anything planned ahead of time - I love having the suggestion cards because that's the exciting part for me. It's exciting for me to be able to take your suggestion and turn to a song. And when you hear the recognition from the audience, that they wrote that, and people come up after the show: "You picked my suggestion!" I love when people in the audience respond, when they get their suggestion heard, because everybody else goes "Oh, that's a real thing." There has to be something really heightened about your experience of improv. It's gotta look like magic. You have to feel like you're watching a magic show. That's what I want to give people - that experience of, "Oh my gosh, this is magical. The whole evening feels magical and I'm part of it. I'm in it. It's my suggestions." That was one of the impulses for me doing it - I wanted to take improv to another level. I hope that's what it is.

Jason, thank you so much for the nice visit.

Oh, this was great

I will see you on the 27th.

Thank you for coming!

Visit the Birdland website HERE and the Jason Kravits website HERE.

Read two different Broadway World reviews of OFF The TOP! HERE and HERE.

Julie Benko will be joining Jason Kravits immediately after appearing on the Birdland mainstage with her husband, Jason Yeager, in his show UNSTUCK IN TIME: THE Kurt Vonnegut SUITE. For a great Birdland double feature, see the Jason Yeager Septet at 7 and Jason Kravits OFF The TOP! at 8:30. Tickets for Jason Yeager can be accesed HERE.



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